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What’s the Value of an Online Art Crit?

It’s all about democratizing art education.

Art Prof’s Clara Lieu critiques high school student Caffrey Fielding’s work (photo courtesy Clara Lieu)

Critiques may often serve as the butt of jokes, but there’s no denying they’re an indispensable component of every artist’s education. That’s why when Rhode Island School of Design professor Clara Lieu created her free online art school, Art Prof, she made sure to include several options for virtual crits.

Art Prof is something of a mix between Khan Academy and Bob Ross, providing free online classes taught by Lieu and a number of teacher assistants. The website includes instructional videos, which Lieu films in her own home, as well as information on various mediums, and professional development resources. “In an ideal world, we would be similar to Antiques Roadshow, so that we could travel and meet artists and critique everything in person,” Lieu told Hyperallergic in an email. “However, we currently operate on a shoe string budget, and most of our staff (including myself) work on a volunteer basis, so this isn’t a format that is possible for us at this point.”

For now, many of Art Prof’s critiques are presented as video, with several different options, including group critiques of a single work and portfolio critiques. Lieu said that while the video critiques are by invitation, anyone can submit an artwork for a one-minute audio crit online via Instagram. Either way, the works are discussed based on photos, and Lieu and her staff only see the works in person when they invite artists into Lieu’s home studio for what she calls Crit Chats. “We shoot all of our videos at my home, so for this reason, we only invite people who I know personally,” Lieu said. “I actually live near Boston, so most people we invite are in that area. We aim to invite artists who represent a range of ages and media. For example, we have invited high school students as well as people who are retired.”

The overall goal of Lieu’s online art classes and critiques is to provide artists and hobbyists outside of major art hubs, schools, and communities with the opportunity to receive serious instruction and feedback that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to access. It’s all about democratizing art education. This is why Lieu is determined to keep her classes free, which limits the amount of resources for in-person critiques.

Monday Crit Club at Kelsey Tynik’s studio, taught by Catherine Haggarty, 2018. Participants: Meghan Metier, Haleigh Collins, Millie Benson, Loren Erdrich, Sarah Frazier, Victor Perez, Joyce Yu-Jean Lee, Tim Campbell, Jasmine Yeh, Keisha Prioleau-Martin, Cassandra Levine, Emily Miller, Julian Rapp, and Hadeih Asfani (photo courtesy NYC Crit Club)

Although Lieu agrees that it’s preferable to see works in person, there’s an argument for critiquing digital images of works as well. “In the art world, artwork is often first judged digitally: as images on social media, images in applications, or artists’ websites. If work is professional online, it helps get artists studio visits,” Catherine Haggarty and Hilary Doyle, artists who co-run NYC Crit Club, wrote Hyperallergic in an email. “Due to the importance of documentation of work today, it’s valuable for artists to receive feedback on their digital photos of their work.” Haggarty and Doyle also see the importance of sharing work online via social media as a means of fostering a wider artistic community and starting discussions.

Haggarty and Doyle describe NYC Crit Club as “a grad school-style class where participants meet in person for group critique in different studios and spaces in the New York area each week.” To participate, artists submit an application, and each crit class costs $20 ($25 for critiques with invited guests). Although the focus is on in-person critiques, Haggarty and Doyle recognize the limitations of access. “Online exchanges such as Art Prof’s videos and critique advice can reach artists anywhere,” said Haggarty and Doyle. “To reach artists outside the city, NYC Crit Club is starting to offer independent studies and portfolio reviews, which have the option to be done partially or entirely online.”

These days, a majority of people see art online, rather than in person, and major art institutions, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have been working with digital media companies to disseminate their collections to wider audiences online. Earlier this year, a Met event celebrated the anniversary of its Open Access initiative, which made high resolution images of more than 375,000 works from the collection available for free and unrestricted use online. At the event, I wondered whether consuming art exclusively online might take away the emotional impact of seeing a work in person. “Digital happened after museums were created,” said Loic Tallon, the museum’s chief digital officer. “Either you use [digital] or it happens to you.” In other words, a healthy melding of in-person and digital access is becoming increasingly necessary in all realms of life. It seems art school and critiques are just following suit.

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